Monday, 18 February 2019

The Plane Makers, season two part two (1963-64)

The Plane Makers is a highly acclaimed 1963-1965 British ATV series chronicling the fortune of the Scott-Furlong aircraft company and its brilliant, charismatic, single-minded and ruthless managing director John Wilder (Patrick Wymark).

The initial DVD release from Network, which I reviewed some time ago, included the sole surviving first season episode plus the first half of season two (all of seasons two and three have survived).

John Wilder is still in control at Scott-Furlong, still under siege by his enemies and still displaying his uncanny ability to take insane risks and get away with them.

The Plane Makers is sometimes described as a boardroom drama but that’s a bit misleading. It’s a series that focuses not just on the activities of management but also on the goings on on the shop floor, and the devious activities of bureaucrats, bankers, politicians and union officials. And it’s surprisingly even-handed. The representatives of the working class are short-sighted and selfish, but then so are the representatives of the ruling class. Workers, managers, capitalists, union men and civil servants are all the same. A handful are visionaries. Most are blinkered and stupid. A handful are courageous. Most are timid if not overtly cowardly. A few are genuinely dedicated; most are self-serving. This was Britain in the 60s. Getting anything done was just about impossible. No-one wanted to take any responsibility, no-one wanted to take any risks, no-one wanted to look to the future.

John Wilder is ruthless, devious, unscrupulous, untrustworthy and thoroughly reprehensible but he gets things done. He is selfish but he is a visionary. He doesn’t care if people think he’s a nice guy, as long as they don’t get in his way. He is not however a villain. He is not a stereotyped evil capitalist. He intends to get to the top but he also intends to take the Scott-Furlong Aircraft Company to the top of the aviation industry and that’s going to benefit everybody who works for the company.

Patrick Wymark is able to make Wilder breathtakingly cynical and unscrupulous and still make him a heroic figure. You just can’t help hoping he wins. Although he’s a giant surrounded by pygmies in a perverse sort of way he’s the underdog - there isn’t anyone on whom he can truly depend except himself.

The second half of season two begins with How Do You Vote? and it’s the kind of boardroom battle (or boardroom bloodbath) at which John Wilder excels. Scott-Furlong need to sell forty-two of their new Sovereign short-haul jetliners. They’ve already had quite a few orders but Wilder wants to press ahead and build the whole forty-two right now, even without firm orders. His thinking is that this will give Scott-Furlong a major advantage over their French rivals - Scott-Furlong will be able to offer immediate delivery to future customers. It’s the kind of risky but bold thinking that has made Wilder a legend in the aviation industry but his board of directors is composed of men who are not noted for either boldness or risk-taking.

This episode perfectly illustrates the way Wilder’s mind works. He has risen far but he intends to rise much much further. To maintain his upward momentum it is essential that the Sovereign should be a spectacular success. A modest success or a partial success will not do. Therefore he intends to gamble that the aircraft will be a spectacular success. If his gamble fails he is lost but he doesn’t care. If you can’t reach the very top it’s better to crash and burn in the attempt than to play safe.

In One Out, All Out! John Wilder faces a crisis. His board of directors, and especially the chairman, are determined to cut him down to size and force him to do their bidding. They’re going to sabotage his plan to start immediate construction of twelve new Sovereigns. Scott-Furlong are also facing industrial problems with a major strike seeming like a virtual certainty, and that seems to be a result of another misjudgment by Wilder. John Wilder is on the ropes and is facing not just censure but the very real possibility of being sacked as managing director. Given all this the curious thing is that Wilder seems not only unconcerned, he actually seems to be very pleased with the way things are going.  Is it possible he’s going to be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat? Has he fatally over-reached himself or is he once again a step ahead of his enemies? And what of general manager Arthur Sugden, torn once again between his old union loyalties and his loyalty to Wilder. He seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. And like Wilder he seems to be oddly unconcerned. There are some very devious power plays going on here, which is what this series is all about.

Loved He Not Honours More continues the power struggle between Wilder and Sir Gordon Revidge, the chairman of the board. He has his back to the wall but it’s unwise ever to assume that John Wilder is beaten.

A Bunch of Fives follows the mixed fortunes of a sales tour through southern Europe. Perhaps it should have been obvious that eight men and one woman was a dangerous mixture, especially if the woman is an attractive young widow. Sales manager Don Henderson has enough to worry about trying to sell aeroplanes without having to spend his time preventing the other men from killing each other over the young widow. An amusing little episode.

The Smiler is a young man with a bright future as a Scott-Furlong executive. The only problem is that he is perhaps too efficient and too keen. Too keen to know too much. Another good episode dealing with themes of loyalty, suspicion and professional jealousy.

A book on the history of the Scott-Furlong Aircraft Company puts the cat among the pigeons in the episode In the Book. General Works Manager Arthur Sugden is incensed by the chapter dealing with one of Scott-Furlong’s more successful aircraft of the 1930s. It’s all a matter of who should get the credit for that particular long-ago project. It would be merely an interesting historical argument except for the fact that the brother of one of the major players at that time is now a potential customer. He wants his brother to get all the credit for that 1930s triumph, and if that doesn’t happen then the projected sale of five Sovereigns worth millions of pounds could be in doubt. This is an intriguingly different business drama but there is a serious point to it. Sugden wants to make a stand for the truth. Wilder would prefer to sacrifice the truth in order to sell those five aircraft. It’s an episode that shows the strength of this series - a slightly offbeat story that has a lot to say about the characters of the men involved.

Miss Geraldine owns land that Scott-Furlong needs for their ambitious projects for the future, and in the short term for an accelerated production schedule for the Sovereign. Persuading Miss Geraldine to sell is however quite a challenge. She is extremely wealthy so money is not going to induce her to sell. Various underlings have been assigned the task of persuading her to sell, with a conspicuous lack of success. Finally John Wilder decides to take the matter in  hand himself.

A Condition of Sale is what causes a crisis at the works. An Italian airline is prepared to place a firm order for for Sovereigns but they insist on a demonstration flight with the new Mark VII engines. Unfortunately there’s no way the new engines can be ready in time but somehow Arthur Sugden has to perform a miracle and make sure they are available. In the process Sugden learns the John Wilder method of doing business and loses a few illusions. An excellent character-driven episode.

A Paper Transaction continues the fight-to-the-death struggle between Wilder and chairman of the board Sir Gordon Revidge. Sir Gordon has forced one of his relatives, a certain J. Ashley Pender, upon Wilder as chief accountant, the man’s actually job being of course to spy on Wilder and undermine his position. Wilder comes up with a remarkably ingenious scheme to get rid of Pender but the scheme is more risky than Wilder suspects. While there’s the usual tense struggle for power this is also a very clever and amusing episode.

A Job for the Major causes headaches for Arthur Sugden. Major Crabbe has been brought into the form to do some reorganisation of the works. John Wilder has made it clear that the Major can’t be fired (having an ex-military man in a senior position impresses the Ministry of Defence and could help in lading military contracts). The headache is that is Sugden can’t get rid of him then the Major is going to end up triggering mass resignations of key personnel who cannot tolerate the military discipline on which the Major insists. What makes this episode interesting is that while the Major is his own worst enemy he’s not a fool and in his own way he’s a very decent fellow. His greatest strengths are at the same time his greatest weaknesses. And although the people with whom he clashes do have some reason for resenting him they’re not entirely blameless either.

"A Matter of Priorities” lands Wilder in trouble with women. Lots of women. Including his wife who wants a divorce, which is of course out of the question. His mistress is being unreasonable as well, and then there’s Mrs Rossiter, the wife of a brilliant young Scott-Furlong technician. Wilder has no interest in her, except as a way of preventing her husband from leaving the company, but she still causes him no end of trouble. Oddly enough his mother-in-law is the least trouble of all. But the big problem is his wife and the question is how high a price will he pay to keep her?

In "The Homecoming” Arthur Sugden is giving serious thought to his future and he has to confront some awkward questions of loyalty.

In "Sauce for the Goose” Wilder and his wife Pamela are in Paris. Wilder is busy trying to sell aeroplanes. Pamela is bored and she attracts the attentions of a young American gigolo. It’s her chance to get back at Wilder for his infidelities, but will she take it?

The final episode of the second season is How Can You Win If You Haven't Bought a Ticket? and it involves a power struggle between WIlder and Arthur Sugden. The odds are stacked very heavily against Sugden but he has no intention of going down without a fight. And he has a few surprising allies.

The Plane Makers achieves a perfect balance, focusing enough on the personal lives of the characters to make them three-dimensional but keeping enough emphasis on the professional side to avoid the danger of becoming a soap opera.

John Wilder is a marvellous creation, a man who is equally worthy of both admiration and contempt. This is the tycoon as hero, but as flawed hero. Flawed, sometimes appalling, but sometimes magnificent. Patrick Wymark is superb.

While Arthur Sugden is a very different type of character he’s just as complex and Reginald Marsh’s performance is just as impressive. Barbara Murray as Pamela Wilder and Robert Urquhart as the fussy but hyper-competent chief test pilot Henry Forbes are also exceptionally good.

The Plane Makers is a product of the “everything shot live in the studio” era of British television. At its worst this style can seem clunky and stilted but at its best it can achieve a degree of immediacy and drama that puts to shame the products of later and supposedly more sophisticated eras of television. The Plane Makers is an outstanding example of the style at its best, with everything depending on the writers and the actors.

The Plane Makers is intelligent provocative and rather subtle television. Very highly recommended.

My review of the first half of season two can be found here.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Magnum, P.I. (season one, 1980)

If the signature American private eye series of the 70s was The Rockford Files then the 80s equivalent was Magnum, P.I. and that immediately lets us know just how different these decades were.

Jim Rockford lives in a trailer. Magnum lives in a mansion in Hawaii (even if he doesn’t own it). Rockford drives a bottom-of-the-range Pontiac Firebird, Magnum drives a Ferrari (even if he doesn’t own it). Rockford has been in prison. Magnum was obviously born into wealth and comfort. The 70s was the decade of cynicism. There was glamour but it was a decidedly sleazy glamour. The 80s would be the Decade of Greed. There would be glamour and it would be flashy and trashy.

That's not to say the 80s weren’t cynical. Maybe they were more cynical than the 70s, but it was the decade in which we came to accept cynicism. Cynicism was the New Normal.

Even the fact that Magnum’s wealth isn’t real is significant. The 80s was when we discovered we could live on credit forever.

Magnum, P.I. was created by Donald P. Belisario and Glen A. Larson, two figures who would play major rôles in 80s action/adventure television. Larson created the archetypal 80s action/adventure series, Knight Rider. You don’t expect originality from Larson but you expect high-octane action and a certain amount of style. Belisario would go on to create Airwolf, the best of all the 80s action/adventure series. From Belisario you also expect high-octane action but with a definite dash of intelligence.

Magnum, P.I. premiered in the same year that Hawaii Five-O ended its incredibly twelve-year run. It would have been a crying shame to see the production facilities that had been established for Hawaii Five-O not being used so Magnum, P.I. which had originally been intended to be about a private eye living in a Hollywood mansion became a show about a private eye living in a Honolulu mansion.

One of the fun things about Magnum is that while Hawaii Five-O was a fictional state police agency it is often referred to in Magnum as a real agency. In fact you could argue that Hawaii Five-O and Magnum both take place in the same fictional universe.

Both shows use the Hawaiian settings to maximum advantage. Production values are high.

Tom Selleck has the right mix of relaxed charisma and mischievous charm. He does the action hero stuff well, he handles the light comedy with ease and when he’s called upon to do slightly more serious acting he’s quite adequate. John Hillerman is fun as Magnum’s nemesis Higgins, who is determined to clip Magnum’s wings. Roger E. Mosley and Larry Manetti as Magnum’s old army buddies T.C. and Rick make fine sidekick material.

Magnum, P.I. kicks off with the two-parter Don't Eat the Snow in Hawaii. It establishes Thomas Magnum’s character. He had been a Navy officer and he’d left the service under a cloud and with a reputation for indiscipline and insubordination. We know he’s a Loner and a Maverick. We know he doesn’t play well with the other children. He’s a Trouble Maker, but he’s also Brave and Resourceful and he’s also a bit of a Don Quixote. And he has a certain appreciation for the female of the species. In other words he’s a walking cliché. Whether that will work or not depends very much on Tom Selleck and on whether he has the charm to make Magnum likeable and whether he has the charisma to make him interesting. It becomes obvious very early on that the answer to both questions is likely to be in the affirmative.

This episode also introduces the other main characters. Higgins (John Hillerman) is an ex-British Army sergeant-major who runs the Hawaii estate belonging to bestselling thriller writer Robin Masters (we never actually see Robin Masters and he doesn’t seem to spend any time in Hawaii). Higgins of course disapproves of Magnum. Their antagonism follows predictable lines - there’s both conflict and grudging respect - but both actors are good enough to make it amusing. Despite the grudging respect both Higgins and Magnum are too stubborn and too childish to work out their differences. Magnum lives on this estate, he’s supposed to be in charge of security (his duties don’t seem to be particularly onerous), we don’t really know how he got such a comfortable berth but presumably the owner of the estate finds him amusing. Higgins considers Magnum to be basically a freeloader and to an extent he’s right.

Magnum is a private investigator who gives the impression of being very up-market but like so many things in the 80s this may be largely an illusion.

We also meet his buddies from Vietnam. He’d been in some kind of covert operations outfit. Vietnam would cast a huge shadow over quite a few 80s action-adventure TV series, notably The A-Team and Airwolf, as well as Magnum, P.I. In all these series there is a common assumption that neither the government nor the military can be trusted.

Episode two is China Doll. Magnum is rather sweet on a cute Chinese antiques dealer named Mai Ling. She hires him to protect her and a fabulously valuable Chinese vase for two days. It sounds like an easy job but it nearly gets Magnum and his buddies Rick and TC killed. The guy trying to steal the vase is a Chinese martial arts master and he’s a psychopathic Tong assassin as well.

Thank Heaven for Little Girls and Big Ones Too seems like a missing persons case, nothing unusual in that except that his clients are five schoolgirls. Just looking at their innocent childish faces Magnum knows that these are obviously clients who can be trusted implicitly. That’s his first mistake. Then there’s the girls’ pretty blonde teacher. He trusts her too. That’s his second mistake. Of course she doesn’t really thinking that stealing a Gauguin worth several million dollars is a crime. She has a really good explanation as to why it would be silly to get the police involved. This episode has a kind of interesting double plot which works rather well. This is a fun little story, very light-hearted but it has style and it has charm.

In No Need to Know there’s another house guest and he makes things a bit tense, given that he’s a British Army brigadier and the IRA is actively making plans to assassinate him. The American intelligence people are not officially involved but unofficially they’re keeping a close on things (they’re not happy about the idea of foreigners getting assassinated on American soil), and they’re worried enough to call in some unofficial help. In fact they hire Magnum to keep a watch on the brigadier. Being intelligence agency people they naturally don’t bother to tell Magnum what’s really going on. This is a darker episode and it’s pretty good.

Skin Deep is a murder mystery in which Magnum has to do some serious detecting. A famous actress has committed suicide by blowing her head off with a shotgun. Her estranged husband hires Magnum to prove that it was really murder. And given that a beautiful woman who decides to commit suicide does not do so by blowing her head off with a shotgun Magnum thinks it’s murder as well. Magnum has to deal with lots of Vietnam flashbacks in this episode, and has to solve the case without getting killed himself. Quite a good episode.

In Never Again... Never Again Magnum is up against Nazis! The obsession with Nazis that is such a remarkable feature of 60s and 70s TV was obviously still going strong even in 1980. This story does at least manage one original twist on the theme.

The Ugliest Dog in Hawaii belongs to a wealthy socialite. Sir Algernon Farnsworth really is a dog that only an owner could love. Curiously enough an ageing gangster is determined to get his hands on Sir Algernon. This episode is a total romp and it works splendidly. A government quarantine officer who is terrified of dogs, an elderly mobster who thinks it’s still the glory days of Prohibition, his incompetent henchmen who represent the new generation of gangsters except that they are entirely clueless, plus Higgins doing his social climbing thing and Magnum has his hands full. Enormous fun.

Missing in Action is another Vietnam story. A singer has arrived in Honolulu looking for her boyfriend Eric Tobin. He was a Marine and was posted as missing in action in 1972 but she is convinced that he is alive and in Honolulu. Magnum starts digging around. And he finds that a rather sinister character from Delta Section is also taking an interest in Eric Tobin. Delta Section is one of the more shady U.S. intelligence agencies specialising in black ops. If they’re interested in Eric then it’s a fair bet that either he’s alive or they’re trying to cover up the circumstances of his death. A very dark but very good episode.

Lest We Forget presents Magnum with a considerable challenge. A nominee to the Supreme Court hires him to find a woman he once knew in Honolulu. What makes it a challenge is that he hasn’t seen her since December 7, 1941. Magnum is pretty sure the judge is not being entirely truthful with him. In fact nobody is being truthful with him in this story. A number of Magnum episodes deal with the wounds left by the Vietnam War, so it’s interesting that this episode deals wounds left by an earlier war. This is quite a neat little tale.

The King Kamehameha Club, run by Magnum’s old navy buddy Rick, is cursed by a kahuna (a kind of priest/sorcerer) and the curse soon has fatal results for a competitor in a surf ski race. But why would anyone want to curse the club? Magnum thinks he may know but then his neat theory seems to come crashing down. Overall The Curse of the King Kamehameha Club is a good episode.

In Thicker Than Blood T.C. makes the mistake of trying to repay a guy who saved his life in Vietnam. Unfortunately Joey is a junkie and a loser and trying to help a guy like that is just asking for trouble. And T.C. gets lots of trouble. Like the possibility of five years in prison. He doesn’t want Magnum and Rick to help him but they’re going to do so anyway. Helping T.C is going to require Magnum to get some coöperation from some very unwilling allies. A pretty good little story.

All Roads Lead to Floyd seems to be a routine missing persons case. A young woman is looking for her father, the only clue to his whereabouts being a postcard from Oahu. His daughter is not the only one looking for Floyd Lewellyn (Noah Beery Jr). Floyd is a small-time crook and con-man and he owes money all over the place. And some of the people looking for him definitely do not wish him well. Noah Beery Jr is delightful as the loveable old rogue. This is a fairly light-hearted episode and it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

The Adelaide in the episode Adelaide is a 32-year-old woman from Iowa who wears sensible shoes and wants to hire Magnum as a bodyguard for Norman. What he doesn’t realise is that Norman is a horse. On the other hand he is a very very valuable horse. Quite an amusing episode.

In Don't Say Goodbye Magnum is called in by an old friend, an elderly blind lady. She’s being blackmailed, or rather she’s being blackmailed on behalf of her grand-daughter. The grand-daughter is an old flame of Magnum’s but there’s something not quite right about her. Magnum’s sensitive side is very much in evidence in this story. It’s an OK episode.

The Black Orchid is the kind of Magnum episode that I enjoy. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, it’s stylish, it has glamour and humour and it’s lightly offbeat. Louise DeBolt is a very rich young woman and she’s bored and she deals with her boredom by living out her fantasies. No, not sexual fantasies. These are more in the nature of romantic adventure fantasies. A bit like acting out scenes from old movies (it’s no coincidence that she had originally wanted to be an actress). She hires people to play various rôles in her fantasies and when her fantasies call for a hardboiled private eye type she naturally hires Magnum. Magnum doesn’t mind. It’s more fun that most of the case that a PI works on and Louise’s games all seem very harmless.

Of course they’re harmless as long as everyone understands they‘re games and as long as reality and fantasy don’t start to collide. But that’s exactly what happens and Magnum starts to suspect that thee’s something sinister going on, but of course the problem is that Louise is so addicted to her games that it’s impossible to be sure if she’s really in danger or if it’s just another level of game-playing. It’s a very well executed and very enjoyable episode.

J. "Digger" Doyle is a female security operative called in when Robin Masters life is threatened. Her presence irritates both Magnum and Higgins. It’s kind of fun to see Magnum and Higgins working as genuine allies. One of the trademarks of the series is that we never see Robin Masters. We almost see him in this episode. We do hear him. And it’s the voice of Orson Welles! A well constructed episode.

In Beauty Knows No Pain a crazy lady hires Magnum to find her boyfriend Roger. Everybody wants to find Roger. And some of them do not wish him well. Magnum also gets conned by T.C. into entering the Ironman triathlon competition which oddly enough provides the key to the case of the missing Roger. A very amusing very witty episode.

The first season of Magnum, P.I. is very stylish sometimes slightly outrageous fun. Highly recommended.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Quincy, M.E., season one (1976-77)

Quincy, M.E. had a slightly confusing early broadcast history. It first went to air in 1976 as part of NBC’s wheel series the Sunday Mystery Movie, alternating with Columbo, McMillan and McCloud. NBC discontinued the Sunday Mystery Movie the following year but by this time Quincy, M.E. had been turned into a regular weekly series with conventional hour-long episodes. There were four feature-length Sunday Mystery Movie episodes followed by an abbreviated thirteen-week season in the hour-long format.

There’s some debate as to whether only those four feature-length episodes constitute the first season or whether the following thirteen hour-long episodes should be included as well. For convenience I’m going to treat the four feature-length episodes as constituting season one.

The title character is a Los Angeles Medical Examiner and we very soon discover that he’s a chronic trouble-maker. Quincy just can’t help himself. He’s never satisfied. If a post-mortem establishes a cause of death with 99% certainty that’s not good enough for Quincy. He’s a natural contrarian. He’s argumentative. He ignores instructions from his superiors. He antagonises the police. He can’t stop himself from playing amateur detective. He’s a complete nightmare, and the worst thing about him is that he’s usually right.

To play a rôle like this you need an actor who can be cheerfully obnoxious and still be likeable and sympathetic and Jack Klugman was the perfect choice. He plays Quincy with manic intensity and single-mindedness but still manages to convey to us that Quincy is basically a good-natured overgrown kid.

This series is often seen as a forerunner of later crime series focused on forensic science.

Quincy’s boss is Dr Robert Asten (played with oily smarminess by John S. Ragin). Asten might be a doctor but he’s a bureaucrat by nature and he and Quincy clash constantly. Quincy despises Asten as a pen-pusher and Asten regards Quincy as a gratuitous trouble-maker.

Quincy’s private life is not surprisingly somewhat chaotic. He and his girlfriend have a very 1970s no-commitments relationship.

Robert Ito provides fine support as Quincy’s Japanese assistant (and partner in trouble-making) Sam Fujiyama.

The guest casts are also very strong.

As with the other Sunday Mystery Movie series production values are consistently high.

The Episode Guide
Go Fight City Hall... to the Death starts with a routine case. A girl has been raped and murdered on a beach and shortly afterwards the killer is gunned down by a cop. It’s an absolutely open and shut case but Quincy is obsessed by a couple of irritating small details. The perpetrator shot and wounded by the cops just doesn’t seem like a guy powerful enough to snap a girl’s neck, plus his hands are kind of small and the marks on the victim’s neck suggest large hands. The police are exasperated. They have a straightforward case and they have the suspect in custody and Quincy is making trouble for them. And then there’s a suicide at City Hall and it’s just as straightforward and Quincy has to go and make trouble about that case as well.

It’s the third death that really gets Quincy wound up.

There’s not really much in the way of actual technical forensic science stuff in this episode. Quincy solves the case mostly by having the sort of suspicious mind that notices things that form a pattern. The plot is solid enough. You might find that the the action climax stretches credibility a bit - Jack Klugman is an unlikely action hero and it seems a bit out of character. On the other hand the producers presumably felt that an action climax was needed and they got one.

In Who's Who in Neverland Quincy’s boss Dr Asten makes a mistake that could be more than embarrassing. It’s a mistake that could be career-ending. He releases a body to the funeral home and the body is immediately cremated. The problem is that the body was not properly identified, all the paperwork was phoney and Quincy had intended to do an autopsy because he was not satisfied about the cause of death. Now it turns out the woman was a celebrity and the whole thing looks less and less like death due to natural causes and all hell is going to break loose unless Quincy can solve the mystery of the woman’s death and solve it quickly.

This is a much better story than the first episode. There’s some genuinely interesting forensic stuff and Quincy uncovers some genuinely intriguing and clever clues.

A Star Is Dead concerns a dead movie star, dead in circumstances that are highly ambiguous. Suicide is entirely possible, but so is murder. And accusations are being levelled at a smooth-talking congressman who happens to be an old buddy of Quincy’s. There are very important people wanting to protect the congressman and very important people wanting to bring him down. And there’s the editor of a scandal sheet who would be happy to bring Quincy down as well.

Quincy gets personally involved in this case, perhaps to a dangerous degree. At times it does appear that his judgment has been clouded by his personal feelings. But that’s Quincy. That’s the way he rolls. It’s a weakness but it’s a strength as well. He relies on gut feelings. On the other hand he is a scientist and he backs up his gut feelings with hard evidence.

This episode is the first to feature a courtroom scene. OK, not quite an actual courtroom, but a formal coroner’s inquest. And Quincy produces the kind of courtroom pyrotechnics that would make Perry Mason proud.

If there’s a weakness to this series it’s the sensationalistic endings, but then this is television and it’s in the business of providing exciting and highly dramatic climaxes and while they might be sensationalistic they are fun. There’s not much scientific stuff in this story but it’s certainly entertaining.

Hot Ice, Cold Hearts sees Quincy and his girlfriend Lee on vacation. And of course the first thing they encounter is a dead body. A young man who was stung by a stonefish. The odd thing is, there are no stonefish within 6,000 miles of California. That’s pretty suspicious but when Quincy wants to do an autopsy he hits a brick wall. The local authorities refuse to coöperate. Needless to say that doesn’t stop Quincy. It does slow him down a bit though. The second corpse manages to get the attention of the local sheriff. It’s all connected with the spectacular jewel robbery which took place in the opening scene.

It’s not just a robbery but an enormous criminal conspiracy. Quincy’s stubbornness is the only thing that might derail the conspiracy, if he can overcome the obstacles that just keep on appearing in his path. This one’s pretty outrageous but it has lots of action and it’s non-stop fun.

Final Thoughts
Quincy, M.E. is very much in the tradition of the terrific mystery series that American television produced in such prodigious quantities in the 70s. And it’s a fine example of the breed. The first season plots can be a little over-the-top but they’re executed with style and energy and they work.

The first of the DVD boxed sets includes the four movie-length episodes and season and the next thirteen one-hour episodes as well.

While this may have been the forerunner of so many later forensic science-based crime series Quincy, M.E. is mercifully free of the gratuitous gruesomeness that later came to define the genre.

A very entertaining series. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Murder, She Wrote, season 1 (1984-5)

Until today I had never actually watched an episode of Murder, She Wrote. I guess I figured it was going to be too folksy and too ingratiatingly cosy for my tastes. On the other hand it is a series with an impressive pedigree. It was created by Richard Levinson and William Link, the men responsible for the two best American mystery series of the 70s, Columbo and Ellery Queen. So maybe Murder, She Wrote might be worth a look after all?

It actually has a very similar feel to Columbo and Ellery Queen. This is murder without the sleaze and without graphic violence. There are no junkies and no hookers in sight. It’s all a million miles from the Mean Streets so beloved of so many film and television producers. This is murder done in an orderly and relatively civilised manner. Which is not to say that it’s necessarily bland or innocuous. Murder is if anything more shocking when it takes place in civilised surroundings (this is something that was known to the writers of the between-wars golden age of detective fiction but it’s been largely forgotten since).

Murder, She Wrote is also, like Columbo and Ellery Queen, very very plot-driven. This is murder as intellectual puzzle. There are going to be clues and they’re not necessarily going to be obvious. You’re going to have to pay attention.

The resemblances between this series and Ellery Queen are very marked. In both cases we have a successful writer of detective fiction who also dabbles in actual crime-solving on an amateur basis. The odd thing is that Ellery Queen (for all its excellence) was a commercial failure and was cancelled after a single season. Murder, She Wrote became one of the biggest hits in television history, running for an incredible twelve seasons. Why one series should fail while another, employing pretty much the same formula, should succeed spectacularly is one of the minor mysteries of pop culture.

The Episodes

The pilot episode was The Murder of Sherlock Holmes. Jessica Fletcher is a busy cheerful widow who lives in a small seaside town in Maine, Cabot Cove. Purely for her own amusement she tried writing a detective novel. Much to her alarm her nephew Grady passed it on to a new York publisher who immediately published it. To her even greater alarm she has fond herself, overnight and completely accidentally a bestselling author. Against her better judgment she is persuaded to undertake a promotional jaunt to New York, in the course of which she attends a costume party, and during this party a man in a Sherlock Holmes costume is murdered. Jessica would never have considered trying to solve the crime herself had the police not insisted on arresting her nephew for the murder.

Deadly Lady involves an accidental drowning at sea, only it might not be a drowning and it might not be accidental and in fact first appearances may be deceptive to an extreme degree. Whatever happened was not what appeared to have happened. What did undeniably happen was that a father went to sea with his four daughters. The four daughters came back; the father didn’t. There are some rather good plot twists in this one. A pretty good episode.

In Birds of a Feather Jessica’s niece has a problem. Her bridegroom-to-be has been doing a drag act in a San Francisco club and now he’s a murder suspect. This is one of those mystery stories in which the victim was hated by everybody and everybody has a motive for the murder. The solution is OK but nothing special. At best a very average episode.

Hooray for Homicide takes Jessica to Hollywood where she’s trying to prevent a movie from being made from one of her books. A low-life producer is trying to turn her mystery story into a sleazy sex saga. Now the producer is dead and since Jessica had a motive for wanting him dead she’s a suspect. But then everybody hated Jerry Lydecker (played by John Saxon in wonderfully extravagant style) and everybody wanted him dead. This is a story in which pretty much all the characters are dismal human beings (this is Hollywood after all) so it’s hard to care very much about their fates. It’s an OK plot and you can have fun spotting the various superannuated second-rank stars in the guest cast.

In It's a Dog's Life Teddy is framed for murder. Teddy is a dog and is extremely wealthy, having just inherited $15 million. There may actually have been two murders and Sawdust was at one time a suspect in the first murder. Sawdust is a horse, although he isn’t wealthy. The Langleys are a rather unpleasant family so it’s easy to believe that any of them could have been capable of murder. Jessica wants to clear her friend Abby who works for the family and had been rather friendly with the now deceased family patriarch. Jessica is convinced Abby is innocent, and she’s convinced Teddy is innocent as well. I’ve probably made this one sound rather silly but it actually boasts quite a clever little plot. In fact it’s the strongest episode so far. Look out for a guest starring performance by former Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie.

Lovers and Other Killers marks a definite change in style. This is the first episode to make use of classic suspense techniques with Jessica being put into dangerous and potentially deadly situations in which she is the killer’s target. It’s also the first episode to descend into tiresome psycho killer clichés. I’m not sure that these are good ideas. In fact I’m pretty sure they’re bad ideas. Murder, She Wrote is really not that kind of series.

This episode has an insanely complicated plot which I must confess pretty much lost me. This one is pretty much a complete mess.

Hit, Run and Homicide is about a slightly unusual murder method - murder by driverless car. This episode is positively overloaded with decrepit former Hollywood stars - June Allyson, Van Johnson, Stuart Whitman. Clearly nostalgia was as very major part of the appeal of this series. Which is fine. When a show runs for twelve seasons it’s fair to say that the producers knew exactly what their audience liked. This one has a fairly adequate plot and it continues the trend of putting Jessica in danger. An OK episode.

We're Off to Kill the Wizard goes totally over-the-top, with very pleasing results. Horatio Baldwin, known as Horrible Horatio, is a larger-than-life character who is a very successful creator and operator of theme parks with gruesome horror themes. He is hated by everyone who works for him, and in fact by by everyone who has ever had any contact with him. He manipulates, bullies and blackmails his employees. He tries the same tricks on Jessica. When he is found dead, with a gunshot wound to the head that seems to be self-inflicted, everyone is delighted. It has to be suicide since it took place in a room locked from the inside. But the gunshot wound didn’t kill him and it wasn’t suicide.

This episode has a decent locked-room mystery as its core. It’s perhaps not entirely original in concept but it has a few neat twists and it works. The horror theme park makes a nice setting which is used quite skilfully and Horrible Horatio is certainly a memorably nasty but undeniably colourful murder victim. The tone is light-hearted and outrageous with a bit of an edge to it and it benefits from the absence of the cloying sentimentality and excessive whimsicality that so often afflicts this series. This episode really is enormous fun.

Death Takes a Curtain Call is a rather dull story about defecting Russian ballet dancers and a murdered junior KGB officer. William Conrad’s performance as a cheerful KGB major is the only real highlight of this episode.

Death Casts a Spell is quite unbelievably silly. A celebrated celebrity hypnotist is murdered. There are six eyewitnesses but none of them can remember anything because of a powerful post-hypnotic suggestion. There’s an intriguing idea here but the stuff about hypnosis really is so totally absurd that it might bother some viewers. It doesn’t bother me particularly since I expect any movie or TV show that deals with hypnosis or psychiatry to be totally ridiculous. In fact the more ridiculous the better as far as I’m concerned so I actually liked this one a lot.

Capitol Offense is an interesting but not entirely successful experiment. Jessica is not only investigating murder in Congress, she actually becomes a temporary Congresswoman. Finding a criminal in Washington is easy enough - it’s full of crooks. Which makes finding one specific criminal rather a challenge. An OK episode at best.

The great thing about theatrical mysteries like Broadway Malady is that you have theatre people trying to kill each other and that’s always fun to watch. In this case there’s a faded Hollywood star making a comeback in a Broadway musical in a show also featuring her son and daughter. There’s a shooting that appears to be a mugging gone wrong but Jessica doesn’t believe that for a moment. There are some interesting financial dramas behind the scene. It’s an amusing glimpse into the glamorous but corrupt sordid and vicious world of show business. Quite a good episode.

Murder to a Jazz Beat takes Jessica to New Orleans where a jazz musician dies suddenly  but Jessica happens to be on hand and thanks to the research she did on one of her novels she recognises the symptoms of death due to an obscure South American poison, but how was the poison administered? To appreciate this episode you probably need to like jazz. I don’t like jazz very much at all and I found it to be at best a middling sort of episode.

My Johnny Lies Over the Ocean takes Jessica to sea, on a cruise with her niece who has been in a mental hospital after her husband’s suicide. It seems that someone definitely means to do harm to her niece. The photographic clue is quite cute.

This is the latest in a whole run of episodes that have taken Jessica away from Cabot Cove and plunged her into very different worlds. I can certainly understand the reasoning behind this. It just wouldn’t be credible for so many murders to take place in one tiny town in Maine. Unfortunately it’s the episodes set in Cabot Cove that work best.

Paint Me a Murder is one of those classic murder mysteries in which the range of suspects is rigidly limited. The murder takes place on the island owned by renowned artist Diego Santana (Cesar Romero) and access to the island is so difficult that the murderer has to be one of the guests at Diego’s birthday party. Now to be honest I’d have been quite happy  if the killer had decided to kill everyone on the island but you can’t have everything. In any case, even if the characters are truly appalling people, this is an enjoyable episode with some old favourite murder mystery tropes (such as exotic murder weapons).

Tough Guys Don't Die is what might have happened had Jessica Fletcher and Sam Spade worked a case together. A private detective named Miles is murdered. Of course Sam Spade’s murdered partner in The Maltese Falcon was named Miles. This murdered PI was working on three important cases, including one in which his client was Jessica Fletcher (it was research for her next novel). His partner Harry McGrath (Jerry Orbach) knows that the code of the private eye is that when your partner gets murdered you have to do something. That’s the code that is laid down in The Maltese Falcon. Jessica wants to find the killer as well although she’s wanting him to face a court rather than the rough justice laid down by the code of the private eye.

This is an episode that could easily have come to grief but while Jessica Fletcher and Harry McGrath come from different detective story universes and they comprise the most ill-assorted crime-fighting team that could possibly be imagined they somehow manage to work together and the script somehow manages to work and what could have been a trainwreck ends up being very entertaining television.

Sudden Death is a football mystery. As a non-American I find American football to be completely incomprehensible but luckily you don’t really need to know anything about the game to watch this episode. Jessica inherits part-ownership of a football team. There are some nasty power plays going on and everybody wants to buy Jessica’s share even if they have to pay her four times what it’s worth. Of course that just makes her stubbornly determined to hang on to her share. It’s an OK story.

Footnote to Murder is another episode in which the victim and all the suspects are rather unpleasant people. They’re mostly writers, and the murder takes place against the background of a literary awards gathering. There’s murder but there’s also the matter of a vanished manuscript which may or may not be the final masterpiece of a great writer. There’s also an Assistant D.A. whose craving for publicity is matched only by his incompetence. The interest in this story comes from the fact that every single character is a spectacularly awful human being so since it’s impossible to care about any of them you can just concentrate on the plot, and fortunately the plot is pretty good. And it’s a rather amusing episode.

Jessica and Sheriff Amos Tupper are off to Portland where Jessica is to give a speech but the bus trip proves to be more dangerous than usual in Murder Takes the Bus. Naturally there’s a storm, naturally the roads are washed out, and naturally the passengers are stranded in a remote diner. And naturally the phone lines are down so they’re cut off entirely from the outside world. And oh yes, one of the passengers has been murdered. So it’s a collection of clichés but that’s OK because that’s what this episode is supposed to be. It’s a collection of clichés but it’s neatly executed and it’s lots of fun.

Armed Response is a medical murder mystery. While in Texas to testify in a court case Jessica is slightly injured at the airport. She discovers that the local hospital is a seething hotbed of intrigue with the tyrannical Dr Sam ruling with an iron fist while the junior doctors busy themselves with plots. It’s not at all surprising that it ends in murder. Luckily the cop assigned to investigate is smart enough to ask for Jessica’s help. The plot relies on unbreakable alibis and it works pretty neatly.

In Murder at the Oasis a particularly loathsome show business type gets murdered. Security at his house was so tight it had to be someone from within his own household. This story makes use of a particular plot device that I always dislike and that I personally feel never comes off convincingly. And it’s perhaps just a bit of a cheat. This episode is in my view a bit of a dud.

There’s trouble down on the ranch in Funeral at Fifty-Mile. A rancher has just died and his will contains a major surprise. He’s left his daughter with nothing and he’s left everything to a man he despised. There’s plenty of ill feeling and angst and pretty soon there’s murder as well. Sheriff Potts is a nice guy be he’s never investigated a murder before, because in these parts of Wyoming folks just don’t murder each other. If the sheriff could be persuaded to leave everything to Jessica there’d be no problem but he tries to solve the case himself, which of course will leave Jessica ending up having to do it all herself anyway. It’s quite a fun dirty-work-at-the-crossroads kind of story.

Final Thoughts

Some of my fears regarding this series were certainly realised. It does try way too hard for folksiness, Jessica is excessively loveable and charming to the point of becoming slightly irritating at times, there is a tendency to wallow in sentimentality. There’s also a little too much whimsy.

Angela Lansbury on the other hand overacts outrageously but somehow she manages to get away with it.

On the plus side there are some pretty decent mystery plots. And despite the tendency to overdo things this show does have a certain genuine charm. And the good episodes are very good. It’s very lightweight but that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be - harmless entertainment but well-made and at its best quite well-written.

I don’t think it’s an entirely successful series but it did run for twelve years so obviously there were an awful lot of people who disagreed with me.

I’m still happy to give it a recommended rating.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Racket Squad (1951-53)

Racket Squad was an American cop series dealing with various cons and the way the police handle such crimes. It ran for 98 episodes from 1951 to 1953.

Reed Hadley played Captain John Braddock of the Racket Squad and also introduced and narrated each episode. At the end we’d be treated to a lecture on the dangers of con-men. The narration gives the series an awkward feel. Presumably it was intended to give a semi-documentary feel.

It was made on the cheap, there are very few sets and the acting is not always top of the line.

The most interesting thing about it is the detailed explanations of the workings of the various cons and that’s a good reason to watch the show if you’re interested in such subjects (I find them to be quite fascinating).

Racket Squad is in the public domain and had had some spotty poor-quality DVD releases of a limited number of episodes. Eight episodes are included in the Mill Creek TV Detectives 150 episode set and they’re the only episodes I’ve seen although others are available on DVD.

Heaven for Sale deals with phoney spiritualists. The spook racket was still a big deal in the early 50s. In this case an old man is conned out of a diamond bracelet by a fake medium who claims to have contacted his deceased daughter. This is a fairly clunky episode made worse by intrusive and irritating voiceover that tells us things we can plainly see. Not a good episode at all.

The Case of the Hearse Chaser is better. This time the racket is checking the obituaries and then persuading the families of the deceased to pay money for goods supposedly ordered by the deceased. In this case it’s a portrait. Not a great episode but not too bad.

In Kite High an undertaker is the victim of kiting which is a racket involving cheques. In this case it also involves gambling and a pretty girl, which are pretty useful aids if you want to separate a mark from his money. This is an OK episode but would have been much improved by some more focus on the actual investigation.

The Bill of Sale Racket features a couple of con artists with an ingenious way of buying up gas stations without ever having to pay for them. This story features a rather unlikely shootout ending (con-men aren’t known for indulging in such shenanigans with guns) - I guess it was figured that the series needed to be spiced up with a bit of action.

Desperate Money is about an elderly tailor who becomes a victim of a loan shark. The strength of this series is the ingenious nature of the cons so this by comparison is a very straightforward tale. This makes the stilted quality that characterises the series rather more obvious.

The System is a classic con, relying on the mark’s greed and on the natural human tendency to believe what we want to believe. It’s a gambling system and it’s worked by a very old trick.

His Brother's Keeper is about a charity scam and it’s one of the better episodes. It has a stronger plot and some genuine dramatic tension.

Take a Little, Leave a Little involves a phoney oil well racket. The con itself is, like all good cons, not very original. But in this case the execution of the con is a work of art. As in several other episodes the plot is a bit sketchy when it comes to the actual police investigation. It’s still a good episode.

Racket Squad is mostly going to appeal to people who already have a taste for 50s cop shows and don’t mind the fact that it looks like it was churned out very quickly and very cheaply. Most 50s cop shows were made like that. Some, like Dragnet, still manage to achieve a certain distinctive style (and I’m actually quite a fan of 1950s American TV crime shows). Racket Squad by comparison just looks cheap.

On the other hand if you’re fascinated by confidence tricksters then this series is like a televisual encyclopaedia on the subject.

Probably not a series you’d bother buying but if you have any of the various public domain DVD sets that includes a few episodes then it has some curiosity value.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Barnaby Jones season 1 (1973)

Barnaby Jones started life as a spin-off from the very successful Cannon private eye TV series. Barnaby Jones would go on to be a massive hit, running for no less than eight seasons.

Buddy Ebsen was already a household name thanks to The Beverly Hillbillies which ended its long run in 1971. By that time Ebsen was well into his sixties but his career was far from over. Barnaby’s daughter-in-law Betty acts as his secretary and confidant. She’s played, and played pretty well, by Lee Meriwether.

The first episode of Barnaby Jones, Requiem for a Son, seems at first like it’s an episode of Cannon. Frank Cannon is preparing one of his gourmet meals when he gets a phone call from a friend who is also in the private detective business, a guy by the name of Hal Jones. Jones is in trouble and wants to talk to Cannon, Cannon tells him to come to his apartment, Jones doesn’t show up. The next morning Cannon finds out his friend has been murdered. He gets the news from Hal’s father, Barnaby. Now we find out about Barnaby Jones. He’s a private eye as well, but retired. His son had taken over the business. Now Barnaby is out of retirement and he intends to track down his son’s murderer, with some help from Cannon.

Barnaby is no spring chicken but he’s tough physically and mentally. He’s tough, but it’s his own distinctive brand of toughness. He doesn’t touch alcohol but he does enjoy a cold glass of milk. He also has a degree in forensic science and has his own little forensics laboratory - very convenient when you want some answers about a clue but you don’t want  the answers to come from the police.

Barnaby Jones slots into what you could call the gimmick detective category which enjoyed quite a vogue in the late 60s and early 70s. There was Ironside, the wheelchair-bound detective. There was Longstreet, the blind detective. There was Cannon, the fat detective. And then came Barnaby Jones, the old detective. Unfortunately apart from that gimmick Barnaby Jones is very much a routine private eye series, with some rather pedestrian scripts. On the plus side, like all Quinn Martin’s shows, it boasts high production values and it’s very polished and very well-made. Buddy Ebsen is excellent. What I particularly like about his performance is that he doesn’t try too hard to make Jones a loveable old codger but he also doesn’t try too hard to make him a crusty old curmudgeon. Jones comes across as a fairly likeable guy but one who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

Lee Meriwether doesn’t get a whole lot to do. She is pretty good though and she and Buddy Ebsen make a good team.

The Episode Guide
To Catch a Dead Man is a very very Columbo-like episode. It not only follows the Columbo formula, it has very much the Columbo feel as well. It opens with a rich man, Philip Carlyle, committing a murder that is clearly intended to cover his own disappearance. He then changes his appearance and pops up in the sleepy little town of Lake Tomac California under the name Fred A. Williams. Barnaby is employed by the murdered man’s girlfriend and he follows the trail to Lake Tomac where we are treated to a Columbo-like battle of wits between Barnaby and the killer, with Barnaby doing the exaggerated folksy schtick to persuade the killer to underestimate him. The killer is played by William Shatner and he’s a typical Columbo murderer - rich, clever, ruthless and arrogant but with an over-confidence that might well bring him undone. There’s nothing wrong with the story, in fact it’s quite hood, it’s just uncannily Columbo-like.

In Sunday: Doomsday someone is threatening to kill Barnaby. Of course we know it’s some crazy guy who’s just out of prison and who blames Barnaby for sending him there. Of course Barnaby also knows that it has to be some ex-con wanting revenge. So this is an episode that is not exactly scoring any points for originality. It’s executed well enough and there’s a clever touch at the end but otherwise it’s pretty routine.

The Murdering Class takes Jones to an exclusive boys’ school where the headmistress’s brother has met a violent death which has been made to look like an accident. The title is interesting since apart from it obvious meaning it seems to have some definite class overtones, with evil WASPs being the murdering class. An interesting episode.

In Perchance to Kill Barnaby is hired to find a teenaged runaway. The girl and her boyfriend are suspects in a murder but Barnaby doesn’t find the evidence to be overly persuasive, even if they are hippies. Barnaby is more interested in the victim’s business partner, and he’s especially interested in a white suit. A routine story but it’s OK.

Barnaby Jones has been in the game a long time but in The Loose Connection he suffers the embarrassment of being set up as a drug courier. The most interesting thing about this story is that we see that Barnaby is fallible. He makes not jut one but two big mistakes. A reasonably solid episode.

Writer Harry Doyle disappears in Murder in the Doll's House and Barnaby’s job is to find him, but we know from the first scene of the episode that Harry isn’t going to be found. This one features a strong guest cast including Jack Cassidy (always fun when he turned up as a sinister crazy in detective series) and Anne Francis. Harry had been spending some time in his home town and Barnaby starts to think that the answer to his disappearance may lie in the past, in a tragic accident six years earlier. It’s another solid enjoyable episode.

In Sing a Song of Murder a pop singer meets an untimely end and his business managers decide this could be an opportunity for them rather than a disaster. They have a plan. It’s a crazy plan but if it works it means lots of money. Meanwhile Barnaby has been hired to find the girl who was with the pop star on his unlucky last night on earth. Barnaby solves this case with forensic science which gives it bonus points. A pretty good episode.

See Some Evil... Do Some Evil starts of course with a murder. As usual we know the identity of the killer right from the start and we know the killer’s major secret as well. What we don’t know is why Stan Lambert he would want to kill Henry Warren. In fact we have no idea why anyone would have wanted to kill him. Barnaby picks up a couple of neat (and subtle) little clues in this story. And the trap he lays for the killer is quite clever. A very entertaining episode. It also has Roddy McDowall being sinister which earns it bonus points.

Murder-Go-Round presents Barnaby with a case that doesn’t sound too promising. A man visiting the little town of Parker Junction is killed by a hit-run driver. His wife gets it into her head that there was more to it. And it turns out there’s a whole lot more to it. Buddy Ebsen is the best thing about Barnaby Jones and he’s in particularly good form in this one, giving an amused and almost playful performance. A good episode.

To Denise, with Love and Murder is about a man who marries an older woman for her money. It works out for him as you might expect it to do. He starts an affair with a younger woman, she wants him to marry her, his wife finds out and it all gets very complicated and unpleasant. And ends in murder. It seems straightforward but everyone, including Barnaby,  jumps to the wrong conclusion. It’s not dazzlingly original but it’s well executed.

In A Little Glory, a Little Death a has-been Hollywood star has become involved in something very shady and he’s been very indiscreet about it and now he has a witness to deal with, a very inconvenient witness. Barnaby is hired by a young actress whose mother, also an actress, has disappeared having been last seen at a party at the home of that faded Hollywood star. The main twist is a rather hackneyed plot device that rarely works convincingly. A very pedestrian episode.

Twenty Million Alibis is obviously a story that hinges on an alibi. A reformed jewel thief turned author can’t possibly have committed a daring robbery because at the time he was on national television, and although six minutes are unaccounted for he couldn’t possibly have carried out the robbery, but he did. It’s up to Barnaby to break the unbreakable alibi. A fairly enjoyable story.

Final Thoughts
I mentioned Columbo earlier. This series does mostly follow the Columbo inverted detective story structure. We see the murder at the beginning and we know the murderer’s entity. The interest comes from seeing how Barnaby will arrive at the correct solution.

Columbo did it better of course. The scripts for Barnaby Jones are just not as strong or as consistent.

Barnaby Jones was however a huge hit, running for no less than eight seasons, so obviously audiences liked it more than I did. That’s not to say I disliked it. Not at all. It’s rather lightweight and it’s not exactly ground-breaking but it’s decent harmless entertainment.

Barnaby Jones is available on DVD pretty much everywhere. The first season of course was only thirteen episodes.

Worth a look.

Friday, 4 January 2019

The Avengers - five Tara King episodes

Some thoughts on several miscellaneous Tara King episodes of The Avengers.

Love All
Love All (written by Jeremy Burnham) takes a basic idea, a security leak within the highest levels of Whitehall, that The Avengers had done over and over again but it takes that idea and adds some wonderful twists to it and develops it with an enormous amount of style and wit. The result is one of the best of the Tara King episodes.

This is an episode in which nobody wants to take Tara’s theory about the security leak seriously. She thinks it’s all about love, that love is the only explanation for the particular kinds of odd behaviour that senior civil servants are suddenly displaying. Steed and Mother both scoff at Tara’s theory but it turns out that she was right. But this is not just another story of powerful men being caught in a honey trap by a glamorous lady spy. In this case they’re trapped by the most unglamorous female you could possibly imagine, a frumpy cleaning lady.

How the scheme works is pretty clever. There are lots of other clever ideas as well - the automated romance novels are a lovely touch.

This is one of the Tara episodes that compares very favourably to the best episodes of the Emma Peel era.

My Wildest Dream
My Wildest Dream has everything you want in an Avengers episode. Philip Levene provides a witty clever script about men who commit murders in their dreams only they’re not dreaming. There’s  a superb guest starring performance by Peter Vaughan as an evil psychiatrist, plus there’s the always wonderful Philip Madoc as one of the sleep killers. As a bonus there’s a delightful comic performance by Edward Fox as al elegant young man-about-town who is besotted with Tara.

There’s plenty of great visual style with the observation ward set being especially good. There’s plenty of action, with Tara getting an absolute corker of a fight scene (and it’s really quite a brutal and realistic fight). Steed and Tara both get plenty to do in this episode. Robert Fuest’s direction is lively and imaginative.

There are some nice unexpected plot twists. And you have to love the idea of an aggresso-therapist. This is one of the best Tara episodes, and Linda Thorson was really starting to hit her stride and get a handle on her character.

On the whole as very fine episode.

In Pandora (scripted by Brian Clemens) Tara visits an antique shop and that’s the last thing she remembers until she wakes up in a strange house. She is wearing an Edwardian dress and her hair is done in Edwardian style. According to the morning paper it is the year 1915 and everybody is calling her Pandora.

Steed is rather concerned as Tara failed to show up for a luncheon engagement and there are some puzzling circumstances to her non-appearance. The key to finding her may be  the Fierce Rabbit. The Fierce Rabbit agrees, but has his own agenda.

This was Linda Thorson’s favourite episode, which is not altogether surprising since she gets to play a woman on the edge of madness. There are some great supporting players. Julian Glover gives a nicely twisted performance while John Laurie (a truly wonderful character actor) has fun as the Fierce Rabbit.

Director Robert Fuest throws in some suitably disconcerting camera angles but he doesn’t go overboard with the hallucinogenic stuff. It’s effectively moody and there’s an atmosphere of unhealthy obsession. The sting in the tail is rather neat as well. This is a pretty good episode.

Homicide and Old Lace
Homicide and Old Lace is almost universally regarded as the worst ever episode of The Avengers.

This episode has an interesting history. The departure of Diana Rigg coincided with a change of producer. John Bryce took over but after a handful of episodes had been filmed he was dumped and Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell were hurriedly recalled to duty. The question was what to do with the material that had been shot under Bryce’s supervision. Clemens took parts of one of these unaired episodes, The Great Great Britain Crime, combined them with some new material and some material from earlier Emma Peel episodes and added a framing story and the result was Homicide and Old Lace.

Malcolm Hulke and Terrence Dicks are the credited writers but Brian Clemens added so much new material that he has to take much of the blame for the results.

It opens with Mother’s aunts surprising him on his birthday. They persuade him to tell them a real-life story. So he proceeds to tell them a tall tale of an outrageous crime. John Bryce’s intention as producer had been to return The Avengers to something much closer to the gritty realism of the very first season, and so one assumes that The Great Great Britain Crime was intended to have that gritty realistic feel to it. But as recounted by Mother it’s pure outrageous melodrama and totally fanciful and in fact quite silly.

Patrick Newell’s telling of the story is quite amusing, and the hyper-critical running commentary on the tale by the aunts has its funny moments. It does have one major thing going for it - Gerald Harper’s delightful performance as the dedicated but bungling security chief Colonel Corf.

On the whole though it ends up being a bit of a mess, although it is mildly amusing and not quite as awful as its appalling reputation might lead you to expect.

The Rotters
Written by Dave Freeman The Rotters starts with the murder of a government forestries expert and we then get one of the more bizarre scenes involving Mother. It became one of the major recurring jokes of this era of The Avengers that whenever Mother had to brief Steed and Tara it would always be in an outlandish setting. Sometimes these interludes were quite inspired. Sometimes (as in this case) they were just seriously weird, but they were usually at least mildly amusing.

Which brings us to the subject of Mother. In the earlier seasons we never saw Steed’s bosses. It was always implied that only Steed had contact with his superiors, and that his partners (David Keel, Venus Smith, Mrs Gale and Mrs Peel) were agents that Steed had recruited on his own initiative and that he was allowed to run them as he saw fit. That changed in the Tara King era. Steed and Tara were both clearly professional secret agents and the character of Mother was introduced as the spymaster figure. Not everyone thought this was a good idea but on balance I think it worked. Tara obviously had a different status compared to Steed’s earlier partners, she was a professional rather than a gifted amateur and the spymaster figure helped to emphasise that. Patrick Newell was always delightful and Mother and his silent assistant Rhonda added an extra dash of surrealism.

In any case, getting back to The Rotters, there’s a diabolical plot here and it really does revolve round wood. Wood rot can be a remarkably rapid phenomenon. It can be practically instantaneous. This can be remarkably useful, but not necessarily in a good way. In fact dry rot might well be the key to world domination (or at least it might be if you’re a crazy person). It’s a ludicrous premise but it works.

A good episode of The Avengers requires some oddball guest characters. The Rotters has that. In fact it has an amazing number of eccentric characters. It requires a reasonably imaginative villain or villains. The Rotters has that as well. The central idea doesn’t have to be wildly original but it does have to be offbeat. In this case it’s offbeat and it’s fairly original. The Rotters gets bonus points there. Most of all it has to be executed with energy and style and this episode scores there as well. It gets extra bonus points for two killers with impeccable manners and good taste.

So there we have it. Five Tara King episodes chosen totally at random. Four of them either excellent or at the very least extremely good (My Wildest Dream, The Rotters, Love All, Pandora) and one stinker that still has some mildly amusing moments (Homicide and Old Lace).